Monday, April 10, 2017

11/22/63 (Stephen King)

11/22/63
Stephen King
Pocket Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: In 2011 Maine, schoolteacher Jake Epping never dreamed time travel was possible - until his friend Al Templeton, dying of cancer, lets him in on a secret. In the back of Al's diner is a portal to 1958, always the same moment - and no matter how long one stays in the past, one always returns just two minutes later in the present. For years, Al just used the local market and 1950's prices as a cheap source of meat for his burgers, but then he realized he could do more... much more, such as prevent the national tragedy due in November 1963: the assassination of President Kennedy. Al tested his theory by preventing smaller tragedies, then meticulously stalked killer Lee Harvey Oswald, but his ill health caught up to him before he could act. Now he passes the secret and his notes to Jake. But time travel is tricky, and time acts to protect itself from even the best-intentioned meddlers...

REVIEW: I've read a couple books and the odd short story by Stephen King, and while they weren't bad, I never got the huge hype surrounding him. Still, the subject of this one intrigued me (and I had a coupon to burn off at the bookstore that day), so I picked it up... and was very impressed. This is the writing that I hadn't encountered before, the stuff that elevated King to his near-cult status.
Jake isn't a perfect hero, struggling to do what he thinks is right against increasing resistance from various sources. His exploration of the past reveals the good and the bad of history, a world often viewed through the glow of nostalgia but which was every bit as contradictory as modern times, where attitudes may be (slightly) different but humans remain human, for better or worse. Time itself becomes a character, a stalking force that feints and strikes and tempts Jake off his course. His ultimate goal may be to stop assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, but even as he pursues that goal he must live his own life in the past, a life where even the best plans and truest loves are seemingly doomed for being built on lies. The story is a bit of a slow burn, but interesting enough to keep me reading, building at last to a tense climax - but what comes after the climax is even more powerful. King's extensive research makes both the "Land of Ago" and the characters come to life, turning the cast into much more than names in a history book or conspiracy theory essay. Reading this book in 2017 is a very different experience than it would've been just a few years ago; much of the ugliness of the past that Jake saw, the ugliness so many of us thought was slowly receding in the rear-view mirror, has come back to threaten our future, casting a bit of a pall over the ending. Nevertheless, I found it an eminently satisfying read, riddled with interesting details and recurring themes and moments that kicked it up a half star in the ratings.
(As a closing note, I still say the best-ever explanation for the JFK assassination was the one posited in the British sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf, in the episode "Tikka to Ride".)

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